On June 15, 1389 a battle was fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Principality of Serbia at a place called “The Field of Blackbirds”. The Ottoman Turks won the battle and continued to expand their empire. This particular battle, in which Serbian Prince Lazar and much of the Serbian nobility were killed, became a symbol of Serb nationalism. It’s symbolism for Serbs is so powerful, that after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, or in translation, the Battle of Kosovo was invoked by Slobodan Milosevic to rally Serbs to his cause of a Greater Serbia. The feelings of nationalism spurred by a battle 600 years in the past led to wars in the Former Yugoslavia in our adult lifetimes.
Why am I writing about this now? First, I’m not going to go into a whole history of the Balkans. If you want to do that, check out Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts. It’s a fascinating read. I’m writing about this to illustrate the power of history to impact our lives today.
We’ve been feeling a little of that impact this week with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of April as Confederate History Month. This declaration, while I believe it would be controversial in any case, and rightly so, was considered inflammatory because McDonnell neglected to mention slavery in the inital proclamation. President Obama stated, rightly, that this represented “an unacceptable omission”. Since this controversy erupted, Governor McDonnell has done the right thing and issued the following statement adding language regarding slavery into the proclamation.
While I give McDonnell credit for correcting his error, and while I am not going to speculate as to the sincerity of his words — I’ll take them at face value and leave it at that, I am going to take this opportunity to say some things that I’ve often thought but never had a platform to express until now. (Ah…the power of the blogosphere!)
Every so often, a controversy comes up with regard to the Confederacy. The most common scenario is that some controversy erupts with regard to states that choose to display the Confederate Battle Flag as part of their state flag or alongside other flags in official or non-official displays. Opponents of such displays, and I count myself as one even though I’m not really in a position to make my opposition meaningful, say that the flag is the battle flag of those who chose to quit on America and start a civil war because they wanted to maintain their right to keep human beings as property. Proponents say that the flag represents their heritage and that the Civil War was one of aggression by the Union with the intent of imposing the will of the Federal government on the states and to deny the South their way of life. They will also point out something else, namely that they had ancestors who fought and died in defense of their homes.
In a way, all these things are true. The Confederacy did quit on America. They did want to keep human beings a property. The prevailing view in the country, as evidenced by the election of Lincoln in 1860, was trending strongly toward the abolitionist position. As for the flag representing heritage, I would say that heritage is in the eye of the beholder and if someone wants to identify and embrace something like a battle flag as part of their own heritage, it’s their call. Was the Federal government trying to impose its will on the states? By the end of the war it was, and by the end of the war, with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union had ended slavery, and obviously, many people with deep roots in the South do in fact have ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War. The most arguable point is that the war was one of Northern aggression. It must be remembered that it was the South that seceded and the South that initiated hostilities by attacking Fort Sumter before Lincoln even got moving on his presidency. The South chose the war. The North, finding itself at war chose to fight back an chose a strategy designed to isolate an defeat the enemy. To not put too fine a point on it, the South started the war. The North finished it.
So if both sides have the facts on their side, what do we do when we’re talking about something like slavery? I would never advocate erasing something from the history books. We need to know history in order to learn from it. The history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South are a part of our nation’s history. We can, however, make a value judgment. We can state, unequivocally, that slavery was wrong. We can state, unequivocally, that no matter how valiantly someone’s ancestors fought when they donned Confederate gray an marched off to war singing Dixie with the stars and bars flying overhead, those people fought and died on the wrong side of history and for a cause that needs to be understood, that needs to be remembered, but that should never be celebrated. It does not mean that the private in some infantry unit from Alabama was an evil person any more than the German private who fought in World War II is evil, but both fought on the wrong side of history. They should be remembered and mourned, but their cause should not be celebrated.
Of course, this raises another question. What do we do with the fact that we even had slavery, that we wrote it into our Constitution? What do we do with the fact that Jefferson and Washington, men whose names are practically synonymous with American freedom, were slave owners? This gets tricky. We do need to understand the times and issues they were living in. Before we decry their willingness to allow such an evil institution to infect our founding documents, we need to ask ourselves whether a decision to ban slavery would have served to doom the American experiment from the outset. Again, it doesn’t excuse their actions. It doesn’t change the fact that slavery was wrong, but it does call us to understand and learn.